The return of Ilala has stimulated a new wave of optimism across Likoma and Chizumulu islands. However, there is need for a jetty to end the plight of people with disabilities. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
For almost a year, the breakdown of the country’s popular passenger ship, Ilala, left foodstuffs scarce with prices and transport costs doubling up on Likoma and Chizumulu islands. The vessel’s reappearance in May has sent the prices spiralling downwards as shiploads of people are travelling to the mainland without worrying about high costs and safety scares synonymous to the boats that once took over the high-traffic route.
On their way back from the K5 000 two-way trip, the travellers bring boatloads of maize, potatoes, beans, drinks, medicines and other basic goods to the island that relies on the mainland for nearly everything, including firewood.
The islanders might be seeing the back of what T/A Nkumpha terms the worst year since the fall of founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1994, but the absence of a jetty on Chizumulu and Likoma remains a haunting hole in the country’s water transport system which is struggling to stay afloat.
At worst, it hints at disparities the country must surmount to ensure people with special needs access facilities that guarantee them access to better livelihood and income.
Port of call
For Captain Tasauka Ngwira, Likoma’s is a busy port of call.
Unfortunately, people with disabilities have to be carried on well-wisher’s backs and arms since the undeveloped port on the islands surrounded by Mozambique’s Lake Niassa compels Ilala to stop almost 500 metres in the water body. To embark or disembark the passenger vessel, passengers have to jump into smaller boats that race feverishly closer to where the ship anchors. Even on a calm day, some travellers stumble, slip and fall as the boats swing precariously while the arrivals and departures scramble to stay stable on a doorstep staircase that is nearly upright. The swerves and steep steps are fundamentally restrictive to those who rely on crutches and wheelchairs.
It is ironic that the prevailing scene starkly resembles what Fred Mzoma—who became founding principal secretary of what is now known as the Ministry of Disability and Elderly Affairs in 1999—survived when he was a Standard One pupil at the island’s Yofu Junior Primary schools in 1968.
Over the past 45 years, Mzoma has become a symbol of triumph over polio. Having completed primary education at Nkhwazi on the northern end of the island, he was selected to Chaminade Secondary School in Karonga before obtaining a Bachelor of Public Administration from the University of Malawi. But the plight of Likoma-based people with disabilities persists.
“How to travel is an age-old problem for people with disabilities in Likoma. If our colleagues have problems getting into Ilala and other passenger boats because there is no jetty, what about us, with special needs?” wonders Mzoma, who uses crutches.
Being lifted by well-wishers seems to be the only way to beat the barriers on the islands where rocky roads and the long wait for a jetty makes wheelchairs, crutches and other mobility aids a nightmare, but Mzoma squarely points out that this subjects people with disabilities to “loss of dignity and esteem”.
Towards universal designs
Disability rights were at stake when President Joyce Banda underscored Mzoma’s feeling by ordering the Ministry of Transport to make Chileka and Kamuzu international airports friendly to those who rely on wheelchairs and crutches.
Said the President after witnessing a woman being carried from her wheelchair to dance for her at College of Medicine recently: “I recently invited my colleagues from the Federation of Disabilities Organisations in Malawi [Fedoma] for a meeting in the VIP lounge at Kamuzu in Lilongwe and I was surprised to see executive director Mussa being carried like a baby.
“I find this humiliating and very unacceptable. That is why I ordered the airports to have friendly facilities for all as required by the Disabilities Act which my government enacted in May last year.”
The long-awaited law protects the rights of persons with disabilities and promotes their participation in public life. It also prescribes provision of equal opportunities by promoting universal design; an approach to accessibility that seeks to create products, structures and environments that all people can use—regardless of age, ability or situation—to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.
Fedoma executive director Mussa Chiwaula feels the President’s call to action shows political will to close existing, saying: “The transformation of public buildings and structures should be extended to deep-water ports and ships as well.”
“It is like people with disabilities on Likoma and Chizumulu are imprisoned. Without a jetty, they have to undergo the dehumanising treatment every time they travel to seek vital services or economic opportunities that hinge on boats and ships that link the islands to the mainland.”
One of the services includes physiotherapy which is hardly on offer at the island district’s topmost healthcare centre—St Peters Anglican Hospital. Instead, those seeking to recapture their posture, mobility and other desirable physical well-being have to travel to Nkhata Bay and Mzuzu Central Hospital.
Likoma district commissioner Charles Mwawembe feels the poor state of the marine ports has been a major setback to travels of people with disabilities, patients and the elderly for years.
“Government intends to build a jetty at Likoma Port. I hear the designs are ready. What is remaining is implementation. Meanwhile, it is not only difficult to transport people with special needs but also cars that need to be shipped to the mainland for maintenance,” said Mwawembe.
The islanders will have to wait much longer as funding for the port project is missing in the 2013/14 National Budget.
In an interview, Malawi Shipping Company (MSC) publicist Austin Msowoya said it was government’s responsibility to rehabilitate and develop ports. However, government’s plan to put in place proper ports at Likoma, Nkhotakota and Malindi would help reduce the time the ship takes to offload passengers and goods.
“Better ports would not only ease the plight of people with disability but also cut to two days the five-day trip the ship makes to sail from Monkey Bay in Mangochi to Chilumba in Karonga and back,” said Msowoya.
New ship, new challenge
Msowoya confirmed that MSC is building a new passenger ship to complement Ilala, whose design and on-board staircases chain people with disabilities to one seat when there are no crew members and well-wishers to carry them to the toilets, bathrooms, cabins and other decks. According to the publicist, the ship is expected to be commissioned by April next year.
Reacting to the news, Chiwaula said Fedoma expects the ship to incorporate curb cuts for wheelchairs and other forms of universal designs to make the oncoming ship user-friendly to people with disabilities.
This year’s Unicef State of the World Children Report shows the cost of integrating accessibility into new buildings and accessories can be negligible—amounting to less than one percent of the capital development cost.
“By contrast, adaptations to completed buildings can reach as much as 20 percent of the original cost,” says the report released last month.
It, therefore, makes sense to integrate accessibility considerations into projects at the early stages of the design process.
Accessibility should also be a consideration when funding development initiatives such as the ship and jetty Likoma and Chizumulu deserves.